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IDEOLOGIES                                            Islamist, jihadist, Salafist, takfiri 

YEAR OF ORIGIN                                     2004

PLACES OF OPERATION                         International



GENDER                                                  Boys

AGE                                                         7-18

RECRUITMENT METHODS                       Abduction, Coercion, Push & Pull Factors, Online Radicalization, Enticement

INDOCTRINATION                                   Sermons, Propaganda, Ideological Curriculum, Desensitization to Violence

EXPLOITATION                                       Front-line Soldiers, Messengers, Spies, Checkpoint Guards, Executioners, Suicide Bombers, Medics                                                                                    




ISIL is led by its emir or proclaimed caliph of the occupied areas across Syria and Iraq. Two deputies tasked with the supervision of ISIL´s held territories and a cabinet of advisers sit below the caliph as ISIL´s executive branch. Following the blueprint of a hierarchy, ISIL´s structure includes a Shura Council and a Sharia Council forming part of its legislative branch. [1] The Shura Council is composed by religious leaders responsible for ensuring adherence to ISIL´s doctrine and for relaying the caliph´s orders on other branches of the organization, appoint and oversee governors.[2] The Sharia Council is a six-members body tasked with the enforcement of Sharia Law in areas controlled by ISIL, including through the appointment of a police unit (Shariat Troika) [3] and a de facto court system. A Delegated Committee oversees ministry-like councils including financial, military, leadership, security, housing and aid, media, intelligence and legal administering day-to-day operations.[4] ISIL´s structure include also military and intelligence divisions. Fragmented, decentralized and fluid, ISIL´s structure allows for the conduct of semi-independent operations by local actors.[5] ISIL´s leaders often construct new identities  and replace members to ensure secrecy or switch operational strategies.[6]


[1] Al-Hashimi, Husham. “ISIS 2020: New Structures and Leaders in Iraq Revealed.” Newlines Institute, 3 Mar. 2021,

[2] Mezzofiore, Gianluca. “Isis Leadership: Who's Who in 'Fluid' Islamic State Structure of Power.” International Business Times UK, (2015),

[3] US Army TRADOC G-20. “Cultural Assessment of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).” Global Cultural Knowledge Network (GCKN), (2016),

[4] Al-Hashimi, Husham. “ISIS 2020: New Structures and Leaders in Iraq Revealed.” Newlines Institute, 3 Mar. 2021,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mezzofiore, Gianluca. “Isis Leadership: Who's Who in 'Fluid' Islamic State Structure of Power.” International Business Times UK. 2015.

Alex Thurston "´The disease is unbelief’: Boko Haram’s religious and political worldview", Middle East Policy at Brookings, Analysis Paper, No. 22, January 2016.


Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos,"Boko Haram and politics: From Insurgency to terrorism" 2014





Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaidai

Screenshot 2022-05-11 at 19.34.54.png

Emir  (2019-2022)

Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi 


Emir  (2013-2019)

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi



Abu Umar al-Muhajir



Abu Muhammad al-Furqan



Ayoub Rakawi


Head of Hisbah

Abu Muhammad al-Jazrawi


Member of the Shura Council

Waleed al-Alwani


Head of Diwan al-Rikaz

Faysal Ahmad Ali al-Zahrani



ISIL´s doctrine identifies with Salafi-jihadism, an extremist and minoritarian reading of Islamic scripture routed in premodern theological tradition. In a 2007 audio, then-ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appealed “to all Sunnis, and to the young men of Jihadi-Salafism (al-Salafiyya al-Jihadiyya) in particular, across the entire world”.[1] ISIL derives its doctrine from Salafism – a theological movement within Sunni Islam concerned with the purification of faith – which prescribes that the most authentic and virtuous form of Islam is found in the example of early Muslims (Salaf) who were closest in time to Prophet Muhammad. [2] Salafis - often defined as ultraconservatives – display little inclination towards political engagement or confrontation and embrace a ´quietist´ approach to preaching and religious education. [3] Salafis view themselves as the only true Muslims and consider those practicing idolatry as apostates and deserters of religion, including the Shi´a. From here derives the current anti-Shi’ite element in ISIL´s jihadi doctrine.


The concept of jihad stems from the word jahada translating as struggle or effort, oftentimes ascribed in the context of defensive warfare.[4] ISIL exploits the concept of jihad to mobilize supporters[5] and incite partaking into fighting as well as a justification for violence regardless the target´s civilian status (qisas) religion, race or nationality.[6] The adoption is ISIL´s version of Salafi-Jihadism is attributable to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, who was a mentee of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a prominent jihadi scholar. Al-Maqdisi established that jihad takes two main forms depending on the purpose of fighting as either oriented to harm the enemy and his interests (qital al-nikaya) or consolidate presence within a territory (qital al-tamkin). ISIL´s jihadi doctrine is both ´offensive´ and ´defensive´ but the group´s ambitions to establish an Islamic state in seized territories in Syria and Iraq reflects qital al-tamkin and reiterates the restoration of the caliphate as an ideal system of government for the Islamic world which was firstly championed by the Muslim Brotherhood.


[1] Abū ‘Umar al-Baghdādī, “Wa-in tantahū fa-huwa khayr lakum,” Mu’assasat al-Furqān, 8 July 2007. Transcript in Majmū‘, 26–35

[2] Al Manasir, Hisham. “To What Extent Does ISIS Mark A New Stage in the Development of Salafi-Jihadism?” Dec. 2017.


[4] Mapping Militant Organization. “The Islamic State.” Stanford University. 2021.

[5] Al Manasir, Hisham. “To What Extent Does ISIS Mark A New Stage in the Development of Salafi-Jihadism?” Dec. 2017.

[6] Ibid.

A mild narcotic popular in Somalia


Child Demographics by Age

ISIL´s military is formed predominantly by male members. The median age of the group, including local and foreign fighters, is estimated twenty-six years. The main age target for child recruitment corresponds to 7 years old. The group is also verified recruiting younger children, some as young as 4. 


Child Demographics by Gender


ISIL enforces a strict gender hyper-segregation and its architecture presents a predominance of male members, combatants and leaders and reflects the exclusion of girls from its recruiting scheme at the local level for the purpose of combat and combat auxiliary functions. ISIL´s exploitation of local women and girls is connected to sexual and gender-based violence.  This has become evident in the mass abductions of Yazidi women and girls as well as other minorities who have been victims of ISIL´s atrocities, sexual exploitation and other forms of gender-based violence.


The 20% of all Western ISIL´s recruits were however females, including women and girls.[1]


[1] file:///Users/ceciliapolizzi/Downloads/Strommen%20-%20Jihadi%20Brides%20or%20Female%20Foreign%20Fighters,%20GPS%20Policy%20Brief%201-2017.pdf

Military Training



The traditional assumption regarding the use of children as a replacement of “battlefield losses” or as a strategy of last resort, typical of the child soldier norm, is not mirrored in ISIL strategy. The employment of children in a multitude of combat and non-combat roles leads to the assumption that their pattern of involvement in military operations does not present significant gaps respect to adults.[1] In the conduct of warfare, boys are employed as frontline soldiers, human shields, suicide bombers, executioners, snipers or used to detonate explosives.[2]

ISIL, however, attributes a higher or lesser degree of value to the lives of child recruits. In times of military duress and enhanced risks, boys lacking skills and presenting paucities in combat capacity or otherwise, are considered more expendable and therefore deployed on a larger scale respect to adults. Similar considerations are also applied to foreign children whom in addition to lacking particular skills may not be able to speak Arabic and are therefore less prone to assimilating jihadi precepts, unresponsive to commands, less operational and ultimately functional to the group.[3] The same reasoning is applied to other combat roles. For instance, boys failing to display physical prowess, combat capability or skills which may otherwise serve the purposes of ISIL are selected for suicide operations. Conversely, the ones displaying exceptional skills in one area receive additional training and serve as snipers or in other specialized roles.


[1] Polizzi, Cecilia.

[2] Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Iraq: 11 September – 10 December 2014, UNAMI& OHCHR, n.d.,

[3] Cecilia Polizzi, Council of Europe address, December 2021.

Human-Borne IEDs, Vehicle-Borne IEDs, Inghimas Operations 

ISIL has conducted suicide operations more often than any other armed group in history, jihadist or otherwise. In the summer of 2017, seventeen times as many the militants of al-Qaeda-affiliated group, Jabhat Fath al Sham, died in suicide operations ordered by ISIL.[1]  


The training and the use of boys in suicide tactics including Human-Borne IEDs (HBIEDs)[2], Vehicle-Borne IEDs (VBIEDS)[3] and Inghimas operations[4] was reported as early as 2016. In the year prior, 89 boys in ISIL´s ranks between 8-18 years old from Syria, Yemen Tunisia, Britain, France and Australia died in suicide attacks.[5]    

The hyper-reliance of ISIL in using children in suicide operations appeared evident both within and outside areas of its territorial control including several locations in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. According to official statement by Turkish authorities, in August 2016, a boy between 12 to 14 years old was used to perpetrate a suicide attack in Gaziantep killing at least 54 persons, including 29 children.[6]


Boys who fail to display physical prowess, combat capability or skills which may otherwise serve the purposes of ISIL are selected for suicide operations. Since the group does not allow for families´ interference in the use of children in suicide bombing operations or removal from suicide operations training it extensively targets orphans[7] or proceeds to craft distinct narratives to maintain unfettered community support. [8] To die a martyr is deemed the greatest honor and an act deserving of eulogies. Boys partaking in suicide operations are oftentimes featured in ISIL´s propaganda as heroes, showcasing happiness at the prospect of martyrdom. In 2015, 57% of children eulogized in ISIL´s propaganda were boys used in suicide operations. [9]


ISIL´s systematic use of children in suicide operations stems from the desire to confound security operatives, infiltrate secure areas, undermine risk mitigation efforts and overall improve tactical effectiveness and chances of success.[10] The portrayal of child participation in propaganda materials serves both, the normalization of child use and as a catalyst for the voluntary listing of other child recruits.[11]





[2] Comprising standalone events in which operatives use explosives-laden belts, bags or vests to target, in most cases, civilians, only one in ten IS suicide attacks take this form. Chiefly geared towards terrorist, not military, goals, human-borne bombs remain a cornerstone of the group’s directed propaganda of the deedefforts.


[3] The majority of ISIL’s suicide militants die in Vehicle-Borne IED (VBIED) operations, a term that refers to attacks perpetrated using one of nine types of vehicle: cars, lorries, tankers, Hummers, BMP infantry combat vehicles, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, bulldozers, and motorbikes. On occasion, ISIL also carries out ‘thana’iyya’ (joint) suicide attacks using two fighters – one who drives the VBIED while the other shoots from it.


[4] In the specific context of IS, inghimas attackers are distinct from suicide bombers. The term refers to special operations involving fighters that willingly put themselves in harm’s way, maximising the risk of their death in order to cause as much damage as possible. In this sense, inghimas operations qualitatively differ from ‘traditional’ suicide attacks, because their success does not necessitate the perpetrators’ death, although it does make it highly likely.




[7] Almohammad, Asaad, ISIS Child Soldiers in Syria: The Structural and Predatory Recruitment, Enlistment, Pre-Training Indoctrination, Training, and Deployment Publications, ICCT Publications, 2018, ning-and-deployment/ 

[8] Horgan, John; Taylor, Max; Bloom, Mia; Winter, Charlie, From Cubs to Lions: A Six Stage Model of Child Socialization into the Islamic State, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2016

[9] Capone, Francesca, ‘Worse’ than Child Soldiers? A Critical Analysis of Foreign Children in the Ranks of ISIL, International Criminal Law Review, 2017

[10] Cecilia Polizzi, „Fourth Generation Warfare: An Analsis of Child Recruitment and Use as a Salafi-Jihadi Doctrine of War“, SAGE Publishing, ed. International Society of Military Sciences (2022). 


[11] Malik, Nikita & Benotman, Noman, The Children of Islamic State, Quilliam, 2016,

Human Shields

ISIL´s use of children as human shields has been widely documented. 

In 2015, a senior U.S. official firstly reported that with an aim to prevent U.S.-led coalition from carrying out airstrikes in key areas - such as Ramadi, in Iraq – and to maneuver in open spaces by exploiting rules of engagement, ISIL´s militants increasingly used children in shield tactics.[1]


During the siege of Fallujah (2016), serious concerns regarding the use of 50,000 civilians, including 20,000 children, in shield tactics by ISIL led Iraqi forces to halt their offensive operation against the group. Ultimately, 2000 families including women, children and elderly trapped in Albu Hawa and Hasi villages south of Fallujah, were verified used as human shields by ISIL.[2]

In Mosul, faced with superior military strength of Iraqi and Coalition forces, ISIL detained 17 civilian children between 11 to 17 years of age, including 10 children with disabilities and placed them close to the line of contact to protect its fighters and maintain its defensive posture.[3]

In January 2022, ISIL´s militants stormed the Kurdish-run Gweiran prison in Northeast Syria and released hundreds of prisoners. Approximately, 700 boys who were held in the facility for suspected affiliation with ISIL – some as young as 12 years old - have been used as human shields to contrast the Syrian Democratic Forces´ counter-offensive. [4]


[1] Margaret Brennan, As pressure mounts, ISIS militants hide behind kids, CBS News, 4 December 2015, Available at

[2] Al Arabiya News, ISIS uses 2,000 families in Iraq’s Fallujah as ‘human shields’, 08 May 2016, Available at,ISIS%20in%20Iraq%20has%20trapped%20around%202%2C000%20families%20in%20two,department%20as%20saying%20on%20Saturday


[4] Save the Children, Save the Children: Calls to Evacuate 700 Boys from Syria´s Guweiran Prison Due to Intense Fighting, 24 January 2022, Available at

Victims, Witness and Perpetrators of ISIL Executions 

Since its emergence, ISIL has committed acts of violence against the civilian population including lashings, amputations and executions in Aleppo, Ar-Raqqah, Idlib, Dayr az Zawr, Al Hasakah to force submission to its authority. Victims of ISIL public executions are usually men or boys accused of being affiliated with other armed groups or of violating its edicts. 

ISIL´s executions follow a consistent pattern. Through the morality police (Al-Hisbah), ISIL´s informs residents of the time and location of the execution and urges attendance or forces those found on the streets to witness the killings. Prior to the executions, ISIL´s militants announce the victim’s ´crimes´ and declare them as apostates or infidels (takfir). The remains are hence placed on public display - on crosses or spikes - for a period of three days to warn local residents of the consequences of failure to submit to ISIL´s rulings. 

Children have been the victims, perpetrators and witnesses of ISIL executions. The public execution of 15-year-old Mohammed Qatta, a coffee seller in Aleppo on 9 June 2013, was an early demonstration of ISIL´s violence against children exerted to ensure discipline among child categories. Other instances were verified throughout the period of ISIL´s occupation of territories across Syria and Iraq. Boys under the age of 18 have been executed – either beheaded or shot – for suspected affiliation with other armed groups in Ar-Raqqah, Dayr az-Zawr, Al Hasakah. In 2014, a witness to the killing of a 16-year-old boy in Al-Ashara reported the boy’s body was hung on a cross in a public square “for people to see what it looks like to be punished by ISIS.” In May 2015, ISIS executed a family, including minors as young as 14, in a village in Dayr az-Zawr. Residents, including children, were forced to witness.  

ISIL forces child recruits to conduct or partake in committing acts of violence. Boys under 18 years of age are said to have performed the role of executioner. In 2014, a 16-year-old reportedly cut the throats of two soldiers captured from Tabqa airbase in Slouk. In 2015, a group of boys appeared to form the firing squad executing captured men in Palmyra, as well as of a 10-year-old cutting the throat of a captured soldier in Homs. 

Tools to spread terror/Terrorist Propaganda

Auxiliary Roles

ISIL exploits boys in a variety of auxiliary and supporting roles, including as guards, cleaners, porters, cooks, medics, to deliver medical supplies, to donate blood to the wounded, to remove the dead and injured from the battlefield, to film or photograph battles and military life for propaganda materials and to sustain the caliphate´s internal administrative apparatus.  


Under ISIL, prior formal enlistment,[1] boys act as spies and are instructed to report on anyone whom they suspect violating the laws of the “Khilafah”. 20 Through this strategy, boys prove loyalty to the group and success in this role is rewarded with higher responsibilities and military positions. After a formal engagement with enemy factions in the battlefield, boys receive additional spy training. Following defectors´ accounts, ISIL also sends its child recruits to join “sleeper cells” in government-controlled areas to gather information on the government’s strategies and operations.21 


[1] Horgan, John & Bloom,Mia, This Is How the Islamic State Manufactures Child Militants, VICE, 2015,

Preachers & Spokeschildren

ISIL exploits the most educated, well-versed and charismatic boys to partake in public rallies, sermons and Dawa caravans. On these occasions, children deliver speeches or present songs eulogizing the group ideology and practices.[1] In these roles, boys are not only used to induce an emotional appeal but also to spur the association of their peers with the group by eliciting a sense of pride, prestige, praise and higher status. Similarly, in these positions children are also used to shame older men into voluntary recruitment. The underlining idea is that whereas children so courageously and audaciously devote themselves to the caliphate and the cause of Allah, adults who fail to do the same are cowards.  


[1] Al Khayr Media Center, Holiday Cheer in the State of Unification, 07/23/2015

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